A tall, fit, silver-haired woman who sported a turtle pin and carried a license-plate purse, Judy Martz was the governor that Montanans would have been pleased to have as a next-door neighbor, too.

She died Monday in Butte after three years of battling pancreatic cancer. Her death at age 74 prompted tributes from Montana’s present governor and other top elected officials. They praised her as a trailblazer, Olympic speed skater, successful businesswoman, a faithful, persistent public servant with great love for Montana. Our first female governor and lieutenant governor was all that and more.

She knew from a young age the consequences of serious chronic illness, having donated a kidney to a sister years before she was elected lieutenant governor in Marc Racicot’s second term as governor.

A Republican from the Democratic stronghold of Butte, Martz was governor when the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks shook the nation and while the subsequent recession took its toll on state revenues. In 2003, Montana had its most expensive wildfire year to date, and it burned up the state’s fire fund.

An unexpected windfall of $50 million in federal funds allowed Martz to replenish the biennial fire fund with $38.8 million, and to reverse some of the budget cuts made by the Legislature earlier in 2003. Martz directed windfall dollars to education, low-income energy bill assistance, senior programs and legal representation for the state in the NorthWestern Energy bankruptcy case.

A tragic DUI crash cost Martz one of her key advisers early in her administration. But several of her department directors served with admirable distinction, notably replacing an unworkable revenue computer system and steering the Department of Public Health and Human Services through a fiscally challenging four years.

The income tax reform enacted during her administration was either a great accomplishment because Montana no longer had the highest marginal personal income tax rate, or a giveaway to the highest income taxpayers, depending on one’s point of view.

In a Christmas Eve 2003 guest opinion published in The Billings Gazette, Martz reflected on Montana’s blessings and challenges as she joyfully awaited the birth of her first grandchild:

“Some of you may have heard me say from time to time, ‘it's fun to go shopping when you have money to spend, but not so much fun otherwise.’ We have tried hard this year to bring some joy to those less fortunate, and I can only hope that as we work hard to improve our economy that more of our neighbors will find better opportunities for themselves and their families,” she wrote, adding encouragement for Montanans to support local charities.

In closing, Martz wrote: “Our rural heritage and our sense of community make us who we are — resilient, resourceful and determined people. We are in this together — and as we start a new year I know in my heart that only together shall we succeed.”

Whether or not Montanans agreed with her politics or her decisions in office, her sentiments were sincere.

— Billings (Mont.) Gazette

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